Paul and The Unknown God
[by Lantz Manomano]
In Acts 17:23-34 Paul arrives in Athens and he is troubled by the idolatry that he witnesses. Upon seeing an altar with an inscription written “To The Unknown God”, Paul then finds an opportunity to share about the true living God and the gospel of Christ.
Acts 17:23-34 – For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
From the portion of scriptures above Paul is in Athens and addresses the people there about the true God. Below are some of the points that he addresses:
The Athenians had so many different gods or idols whom they worshipped. It is believed that the reason they had an inscription “To The Unknown God” – was so that they may also worship and not offend a God whom they may have omitted or whom they had not yet discovered.
Paul then uses this opportunity to explain to the Athenians that the Unknown God is actually the one and only true God and the one and only true Creator of the Heavens and the earth.
He also uses this opportunity to share about the true living God and contrast the character and nature of God with the false gods that the Athenians were worshipping.
Paul specifies that the true God to be worshipped is the One who created all things including humanity. This awesome God does not reside in a man-made temple. King Solomon said it best in 1 Kings 8:27 when he said to God: “the heavens and earth can’t contain you, how much less this house I have built”.
Does it mean a church building is a bad thing? Of course not, it’s a place of gathering where believers can unite for one cause which is glorifying and worshipping the One true and living God.
However, because God is Spirit – it means He cannot be confined to a room or a building. God can be worshipped anywhere in the world at any time. He can be worshipped in your home, in your workplace or any place that you choose because God is omnipresent. God’s temple is no longer a building but His temple is the people who He created. 1 Corinthians 3:16 – Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
In contrast the Athenians had built idols with their own hands and they had built temples for their idols so that they may worship those idols. So we see a situation where man created his own gods from his own imagination or under the inspiration of the devil.
However Paul emphasizes that the true God cannot be made by the hands of man nor can He be controlled or made to live in any man-made building. The true God is the one who made the heavens and the earth.
From this scripture we learn that God does not need man. It’s man who needs God. Whatever we do in His name is a privilege and is possible only because God desires it. God is completely sovereign and He cannot be controlled by anyone.
In contrast the idols of the Athenians needed man to clean them and polish them. The false gods of the Athenians survive through the blind idolatry of their worshippers.
As our Creator, God is the true source of all life. This is why it is man who needs God. So when God calls us to do anything in His name we must do it with the understanding that it is both a privilege and a gift to be used by the living God who has created us so that we may glorify Him (Ephesians 2:10).
Paul continues to emphasize on God as the Creator and also how He has divine control over the earth. It’s amazing that even though we are people who have different ethnic backgrounds, we all bleed the same blood. When there’s need of blood transfusion there’s no checking of race or tribe but they check on the blood type. The color or pigmentation of our skin should not matter because biologically we are all the same. This is a display of a great God whose ways are higher than our ways. God is the God of all mankind or all ethnic groups.
Here Paul says that all human beings are meant to seek God and that He is not hidden from us when we do so. God Himself desires a personal relationship with every individual human being.
Paul also says that God “is not far from us”. Isaiah 55:6 says: “Seek the Lord while He may be found”; call upon Him while He is near;”
In contrast, the gods or idols of the Athenians were not personal gods who sought a relationship with humanity. These idols could not speak to their worshippers.
To call upon the Lord, we need to believe that He exists and receive Him in our life through faith.
Hebrews 11:6 says: And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.
So for the Athenians to believe in the true God whom Paul spoke about, they needed to believe in His existence by faith.
Verse 28 and Verse 29
Paul continues to emphasize on the reason for seeking God. We seek Him because He is the source of our life and we are created in His image and likeness.
Genesis 1:27 says: So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
In contrast the gods of the Athenians were not the source of life. Their false idols were made according to the imagination of man.
However because nobody has seen God, then God cannot be made into any physical image.
God is Spirit and so we cannot see Him with our natural eyes.
John 4:24 says: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Therefore any attempt to imagine the true living and divine God into an image would be idolatry because there is no man-made image that can define the true living God.
Verse 30 and Verse 31
In these verses, Paul then speaks repentance and the need to turn to Jesus Christ as Saviour who resurrected from the dead. Here Paul gives the gospel of Christ.
Repentance involves a changing of the mind. Paul is asking them to repent from worshipping their false gods and idols and follow the true living God who sent Jesus Christ to be crucified for the sins of the world and then rose on the third day.
Also in this verses God reveals that He does not take ignorance lightly, one will have to account for that ignorance.
Christ is the righteous judge who will judge the world on judgment day and also He is the only one who has risen to Life conquering death and the grave. For us to truly worship we have to believe in what Christ has done for us through His death and resurrection and what it means for us
1 John 5:10 says: Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.
Verse 32, Verse 33 and Verse 34
In these verses we learn that Paul was mocked for sharing about the true living God. He was also mocked for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Christians we should also expect to be mocked when people refuse to accept either the existence of the true living God or when they refuse to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However whilst some mocked Paul, there were others who accepted his message and became believers because of Paul’s testimony about God.
As Christians we have no control over the hearts of men. We can only share words of life and hope that people will open their hearts to God whenever the gospel is shared. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convert regenerate the hearts of people.
John 6:63 says: It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
John 4:21-24 – Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
God wants to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Let’s list down the importance of worshipping a true God who has made himself known to us.
1. It’s a result of a relationship. A relationship with the living God is possible when we receive Jesus Christ through faith because He is our Mediator who paid for our sins on the Cross.
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me” – John 14:6.
2. True worship yields results as the Lord rewards those who diligently seek Him. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart – Jeremiah 29:13
3. One can easily surrender their life to the Creator because of the knowledge they have on Him. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead – 2 Corinthians 1:9
4. We learn to live out of a pure heart and with an attitude of thanksgiving.
And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father – Colossians 3:17
5. As we worship the true living God we get to destroy unknown and worthless idols that had dominated our lives.
A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars – Acts 19:19
6. We are able to put our faith to the test by being confident that our prayers are heard.
I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. – 1 John 5:13-14
7. True true repentance leads to true worship. Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away – Acts 3:19
8. We begin to live our lives knowing that there’s going to be judgment.
And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life. –Romans 2:16
9. True worship teaches us to hear God’s voice because the true living God speaks. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd – John 10:16
I pray that this helps those who may be involved in idolatry or who pray to an idol that they do not know. It is important to know the one and only true living God. This God can be found in the Bible and He sent His begotten Son Jesus Christ to pay for our sins on the Cross so that we may have eternal life (John 3:16). Through Christ we have eternal fellowship with a God who seeks a relationship and who wants to communicate His love for us. But to come to this place of true repentance we must through faith receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer from sin and allow Christ to reign in our life.